Thirty-two years after the first cases of AIDS were diagnosed, the epidemic is still not over. Tremendous progress has been made over the decades, as a disease initially shrouded in silence and stigma is now preventable and treatable. Due to incredible advances in medical research, bold action by advocates, patients, and doctors, and political commitment by governments around the world, we have begun the process of bringing this epidemic to an end. In recent years, however, our commitments have been stagnating, as global leaders make bold claims about the end of AIDS but fail to adequately fund treatment and prevention programs that could eradicate the disease.
Nearly 35 million people around the world are currently living with HIV/AIDS, but just barely half of those who need access to life-saving antiretroviral drugs have access. After 25 million deaths from AIDS, we finally have the tools to envision a day when there need not be another more. On World AIDS Day, December 1, two years ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed that “an AIDS-free generation” is within sight. With another World AIDS Day this past Sunday, it is time to commemorate the lives lost. But it is also time to renew our commitment to the end of AIDS, not only with lofty words, but also with serious action to enact that vision.
In many regions of the world, infection rates continue to increase, but expansions in access to treatment are not keeping pace. Key populations at high risk especially lack adequate access to treatment. As precious time ticks by, international funding plateaus rather than rises to the occasion. This sense of complacency comes at a time not only when moral prerogative demands action, but also when scientific evidence has proven that now is the time to act. A landmark study published in 2010 showed that providing early treatment to people living with AIDS can reduce transmission rates by 96 percent. Placing people on treatment early and widely is in itself an effective means of prevention. We have further scientific knowledge and technology at our disposal, such as rapid testing. We have turned AIDS into a chronic illness rather than a definite death sentence. What we need now is a decisive push to ensure that people who need treatment are able to receive it.
Two weeks ago, in a welcome display of bipartisan solidarity, Congress unanimously passed a bill to reauthorize the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. This ensures that the program itself, which has placed 6 million people on treatment and funded prevention and care programs for people living with AIDS since 2003, will continue to exist for the next five years. While this ensures the continuation of PEPFAR, it does not guarantee that PEPFAR will be adequately funded. It is not the divisive political climate of Congress that threatens to stall the fight against AIDS, but rather the Obama administration. Even with unanimous agreement from Congress that ending AIDS must remain a priority of the United States, the President remains hesitant to commit to a treatment target that will make this goal a reality. This World AIDS Day, we call on President Obama to make a full-fledged commitment to placing 12 million people on treatment by 2016. This renewed effort will place us back on track to achieve an AIDS-free generation. Join us tonight on the steps of Memorial Church at 7 p.m. to commemorate the lives lost to this disease and to call for the bold action needed to ensure that one day a diagnosis will not be a death sentence for any citizen of the world.
Bekka Depew ’16 is a biomedical engineering concentrator in Quincy House. Eric Romo ’14 is a neurobiology concentrator affiliated with Leverett House. Darshali Vyas ’14 is a social studies concentrator in Quincy House. All three are members of the Harvard Global Health and AIDS Coalition.
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